The journey to a high school diploma for most Maryland students spans four years, 720 days of classes, and a slate of state tests. But for dozens of Baltimore youths, the journey has involved a two-hour trip up Interstate 95, a three-hour exam and a $500 check.
Over the past year and a half, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services paid $40,000 of taxpayer money to send youths in foster care to a private Christian school in Philadelphia where they have obtained a high school diploma in one day.
Social Services officials defend the program, despite its unusual method of providing diplomas. They say the overwhelming majority of the 80 youths who have traveled to Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy have been successful at the small K-12 school.
The youths, most age 18 and older, went to the academy in the morning, took a series of exams, and if they passed, returned to Baltimore that afternoon with a Pennsylvania diploma.
Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the city social services agency, said those diplomas are like "keys to the kingdom" for youths whose life circumstances have prevented them from having a traditional school career.
"I'm not an expert in what everyone has to do to get a high school diploma, but what I do know is … these diplomas opened doors where they would have otherwise been slammed shut," she said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke questions why Baltimore's public school system — which has several alternative programs that help students as old as 21 meet graduation requirements — could not meet the needs of the youths in foster care.
"There's no reason that the school system and DSS couldn't have made these diplomas accessible in an accelerated way through a partnership with GED," said Clarke, who chairs the council's Education Committee and has advocated for improved access to alternative and adult education programs.
She added that with the money spent on the diplomas from the Philadelphia school, "we could pay for a lot of GED tests for our students, or we could jump-start the education required for them to get those diplomas."
Others questioned whether this was the best use of taxpayer funds and said such a decision should have been publicly vetted.
"For an investment of this nature, you really do need a holistic analysis of whether this is the best way to handle these students," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
"We don't want to just fail our kids, and leave them behind … but with government funds, especially sent to religious institutions, this needs to be holistically decided."
The Crooked Places Made Straight option is similar to the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, a nationally recognized program that offers a series of tests in lieu of state-required course work in order to obtain a high school diploma, or the equivalency.
The GED is a regulated program that can only be administered at approved sites, and test-takers generally pay an out-of-pocket fee that ranges from $45 to $150, depending on whether the test is done on paper or on a computer.
Winona Stewart, principal of Crooked Places Made Straight, said she has run the program for 15 years.
In a telephone interview Monday, she staunchly defended the program, which has served young adults from Baltimore and other states she did not specify, though she acknowledged that its legitimacy has been challenged.
"I don't get why people are questioning me when people get GEDs all day long," she said. "Most kids don't graduate on a 12th-grade level, no way."
She added that "a lot of kids who left from here, they're going to college, the Marines. At least they can move to the next level, and they can do something positive with their life."
But after inquiries from The Baltimore Sun to the school's accrediting body, the National Association of Private Schools, Stewart said Friday that she was shutting the one-day testing program down.
"My boss explained some things that I was doing wrong that I just didn't know that I was doing wrong," Stewart said. Of note, she learned that Baltimore students would have to do at least a year's worth of work to earn the diploma she was awarding.
"I've learned a whole lot from this," she added through tears, "mostly that shortcuts don't work."
Tierney said the social services agency provides alternative education options to older youths — about 40 percent of the city's foster children are age 17 or older — who are nearing the end of their time in the system, and "the gap for them, from where they're standing, is too wide."
Some attend the city's alternative programs, and others chose Crooked Places Made Straight.
She said that 90 percent of the students who have attended the Philadelphia school obtained diplomas, and 75 percent of the successful students have used the diploma to enroll in college and to secure jobs.
Tierney said that while the program is sending Maryland taxpayer funds out of state to a private institution, the agency sees it as supporting Maryland residents who are temporarily out of state.
"The young people who went there still live here in Baltimore City," she said, "and they're more likely to be productive, tax-paying citizens when they would not, had they not had a high school diploma."
Crooked Places Made Straight is housed in a mint-green, one-story building with barred windows on a little-traveled street off Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. Baltimore youths were driven to the school individually by their social workers, and sometimes groups were transported in vans.
Little information is publicly available about the school, though several education information websites state that it serves about 80 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Stewart also said she educates students in high school, but a sign on the front of the school advertises kindergarten through sixth grade, and neighbors said they often see small children in uniforms going to and from the school.
A 17-year-old student leaving the school Tuesday said he started high school there in late September and hoped to get his diploma in February. He described the school as good and its headmaster as "strict as hell" about passing the high school exams.
He said he's seen students from out of town come to the school for a day to take the tests and "fly right through them."
Crooked Places Made Straight also doubles as a church and, according to its sign, hosts Bible studies and a school of performing arts on Saturdays. The name is taken from a Bible verse.
According to records on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website, the school is registered as nonpublic and nonlicensed.
Schools "sponsored by bona fide religious institutions" are not required to be licensed, according to the website of the department, whose officials did not respond to a request for an interview. In Pennsylvania, licensed private schools are regulated by a state oversight board; nonlicensed schools are not.
Nonpublic schools in Pennsylvania can be accredited by three state-approved organizations. Crooked Places Made Straight is accredited by the National Association of Private Schools, which is not one of the three recognized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Nonpublic or private schools are not required to be accredited in Pennsylvania.
Marvin Reynolds, executive director of the NAPS, said that the organization has strict requirements for how its schools should issue credit for high school graduation. Reynolds said the organization's standards for its more than 180 schools were "patterned" after public school standards.
The organization requires, for example, that schools' instruction and core curriculum equal at least two semesters of a school year, and that "course credit will not be recognized for … testing for course credit apart from actual completion of credible course work."
Reynolds said he was "saddened" to hear that the Philadelphia school's practice deviated from the organization's mission.
"We will not accredit a diploma mill," he said. "Otherwise our credibility would go out the window. We do not encourage schools to do that. It's just not the way things are supposed to be done."
DiJohn Thomas, 20, who is in city foster care and obtained his diploma from the school in June, said he left Philadelphia with a chance of making it in Baltimore.
"My life was already planned for me before I was able to take this step," he said. "Now I'm only the second person in my family to get a high school diploma. Usually, it's you go to school, or you get a GED. You get neither, and you're just a statistic. … I didn't want that. I am proud of myself for doing this."
Thomas bounced around group homes for most of his school years and eventually stopped going to school. The work was too easy at his city school, he said, and the classes too big.
It would have taken him another two to three years to get a high school diploma, Thomas said, and he didn't want to attend school with younger students. He didn't want to get a GED, he said, because he felt it was a stereotype associated with poor blacks.
When he learned about Crooked Places Made Straight, he was "shocked" that such a program existed.
Now Thomas — who said he passed the exams at the Philadelphia school with flying colors — is studying music theory and theater at the Community College of Baltimore County. He's also taking prerequisites to transfer to Morgan State University, where he hopes to minor in business and management.
"Yeah, it may be considered a cheap way out, but it's for people who need that push … and sometimes people don't get that in the school system," he said. "School is not for everybody. But if you have a program that can make school work for some people, that's a step up. And you get more people off the street and in the workplace that way."
The Philadelphia school's model deviates significantly from alternative programs in Baltimore that are designed to help students as old as 21 complete high school.
In the Baltimore programs, which help students satisfy minimum graduation requirements, students still have to meet all Maryland requirements, including passing the High School Assessments and taking four math and English credits as well as gym, health and technology education.
The Maryland State Department of Education does not specify how many hours of a subject equate to a single-year credit, but it requires students to go to school 180 days a year.
Clarke noted that the news about the Philadelphia diploma program came to light amid recommendations to shut down two Baltimore public schools that offer accelerated graduation programs in the city.
"Let this experience be a wake-up call to Baltimore City schools," she said.
Baltimore school officials declined to comment for this article.
'They have to earn it'
Stewart emphasized that students who came to her obtained the same diploma as 12th-graders who attend four years of high school. She said that she generally required Baltimore students to be at least 18, though sometimes she would make an exception for 17-year-olds.
More importantly, she said, the standards for all students were high.
"I let all the social workers know from the beginning: 'Don't bring me kids who aren't smart, and don't give me kids who can't read or write,'" Stewart said. "They're not getting anything, they have to earn it. A lot of them did a lot better than the regular students."
Stewart said students had to pass a series of exams, which she called "diagnostic tests," to earn the diploma, and if they didn't, they had to attend the school for a year.
She said that if a Baltimore student didn't pass the exams, she gave the $500 fee back. She said she did not extend classes to the Baltimore students because they lived so far away. She declined to specify the subjects covered on the tests.
DiJohn said he took a battery of exams that included math, English and social studies.
Stewart said Friday that she was "hurt" that she couldn't continue to help those who are prepared enough to bypass school and go to college.
"Maybe one day God will bless me to restart the program," she said. "It's a shame that you got people who are so brilliant, and they just need to go to the next level. But maybe I can do it again, and do it the right way."
Tierney said the diploma program at Crooked Places Made Straight spread among her foster-care youths by word of mouth, and she had received no evidence in the last year and a half that the department shouldn't offer it as an option.
She added that she did not refer foster care youths to Crooked Places Made Straight — though the department paid the $500 fee — and would not restrict them from attending the school because they are old enough to make their own decisions.
"I am a champion of my older youth … to have access to education," she said. "The paths for each of them is different."
Tierney acknowledged that the department's decision to provide and fund the option for students to obtain a diploma in a day is controversial, but said she had taken "a longer view."
When she took her post in 2007, she said, the only obligation she had for older youths in foster care was making sure that they knew how to sign up for food stamps.
"If that's the best we can do, then shame on us," she said. "If Crooked Places Made Straight means they could go to college and choose what they want to do with their lives — then yeah, I'm OK with that. Beats the heck out of food stamps."
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